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'Cutting-Edge' Educator Gets Ready to Step Down, but Not to Stop

April 16, 2009 By:
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Helene Z. Tigay, outgoing executive director of ACAJE
Helene Z. Tigay is preparing to step down as executive director of the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education after 20 years with the organization, 18 of them spent in her current post.

While the lifelong educator said that she isn't exactly leaving a "To Do" list behind for her successor, she acknowledged that there's still plenty left to do when it comes to improving Jewish education.

Rabbi Philip Warmflash, founding director of the Jewish Outreach Partnership, is slated to take over her position on Sept. 1.

"There is loads to do. I mean we have just scratched the surface of what has to be done," said Tigay several days after receiving ACAJE's Kesher L'Atid ("Link to the Future") award at an event that drew more than 200 people. "I really believe that Jewish education is going to save our future. I'm committed to that."

At the top of Tigay's list of what still needs to happen: focusing on early-childhood education, an area that she said needs improvement. While enrollment in synagogue preschools has grown in the last decade, many teachers in the field are underpaid and lack proper professional training, she said.

And in terms of congregations using preschools as an outreach tool for young families, Tigay said that a great deal of untapped potential exists.

Sitting in her spacious but slightly cluttered office at the Mandell Education Campus in Elkins Park, Tigay said that ACAJE also needs to create an avenue for staff and volunteers involved in all facets of Jewish education, including camps and Israel trips, to share information and ideas.

The goal? To optimize the overall experience and, with any luck, keep kids involved long after their Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

"If all these groups would sit down, and become teams and work together, I think we would have a transformed educational system," said the educator.

'Closer Than We Ever Were'
But while the 65-year-old seemed intent on discussing what needs to be done, her colleagues in the field of Jewish education were eager to focus on all that Tigay has accomplished in her career. They describe the agency under her leadership as a trendsetter, in particular, citing the success of its NESS program (Nurturing Excellence in Synagogue Schools), which was begun in 2003.

"She's gone way beyond what anybody would have expected for any central agency. She's been cutting edge in almost everything she's done," said Lewis Grafman, a former president of ACAJE's board and current executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's Mid-Atlantic region.

Tigay's belief in the power of organizational dynamics and the ability to make systematic changes lies at the core of her educational philosophy and of the design of the NESS program.

For Tigay, the manner in which educators, staff, parents, synagogue lay leaders and clergy interact isn't based in theory alone, but can, in fact, determine the quality of a school -- and whether or not a child will be inspired to go on to lead a Jewish life.

Several times during the interview she pointed out that more than 80 percent of Jewish children in the area receive their Jewish education in synagogue-affiliated schools.

NESS incorporates a multipronged approach to strengthen supplementary schools. This includes focusing on professional development for teachers, leadership training for educational directors, curriculum development and organizational strategies for congregations.

"Central agencies used to train teachers -- and that's all," said Tigay. "But it turns out that is one of the many things you have to do."

For Tigay, the NESS initiative was about calling attention to synagogue schools, proving they could be effective, and compelling the Jewish community to invest its resources in them.

"When I first came to meet with colleagues, the only thing that was talked about was day schools. No one talked about synagogue schools," said Tigay, adding that now, a number of foundations are funding Hebrew-school initiatives.

"We have changed the whole national dialogue. We are not there yet, but we are a hell of a lot closer than we ever were."

The NESS program's roots lay in a study conducted in 2002 by Sharon Ravitch, then a consultant at ACAJE, and now a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, who found a strong correlation between students' decisions to opt out of Jewish studies post-Bar and Bar Mitzvah, and their earlier experiences in Hebrew school.

"Young people are really savvy consumers of their own educational experiences," said Ravitch, adding that Tigay has never been reticent to apply general educational research to the Jewish world.

The program worked with two cohorts of half-a-dozen synagogues over a three-year period.

The post-evaluation, which was conducted by the Jewish Education Service of North America, showed that many sixth-graders reported a far more favorable impression of Hebrew school than before.

San Francisco's Bureau of Jewish Education represents the first organization to try and replicate the NESS formula.

"NESS showed me that we don't have to accept the status quo. A lot of people looked at synagogue-based education, and just threw up their hands and said, it's hopeless," said David Waksberg, executive director of the bureau.

Education Always on Her Mind
Tigay is leaving an agency that has more than 20 full-time employees and an annual budget of $1.8 million, more than half of which comes from private funding.

Of course, she recalled that when she first started as an ACAJE consultant in 1989, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supplied practically all of the funding for the budget.

She said that in light of the economy, fundraising has proven to be a major challenge, however so far, neither staff nor programming has been cut.

Tigay, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., said that a trip to Israel when she was still a teenager inspired her to become a Jewish educator.

And so, she attended the joint undergraduate program at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, and later earned a master's degree in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

For nearly two decades, she taught Judaic studies, first at what was then known as the Solomon Schechter Day School, and later at the Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion.

In 1989, while on sabbatical from Akiba, Tigay joined ACAJE as an educational consultant; what was supposed to be a one-year gig turned into a 20-year relationship.

The mother of four and grandmother of five said that she's looking forward to having more time with her family, but isn't sure exactly what she plans to do next.

"I think it will be hard to keep me from doing something in the area of Jewish education," she acknowledged. "I know for sure that I'm not going to be sitting and knitting and playing mah-jongg, because I don't knit, and I don't know how to play mah-jongg!"


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